By Sophie Bustos:
On Thursday, June 19, a new king was crowned in Spain. Prince Felipe succeeded his father, King Juan Carlos who announced his abdication on Monday, June 2. The very day that the news of the abdication was made public, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gathered an extraordinarily lively press conference; a remarkable event since Rajoy most often prefers to communicate with press and citizens through the absurdly controlled means of pre-recorded conferences. The public had the additional privilege of a message from Don Juan Carlos himself, who explained his motives for abdicating.
Juan Carlos looked much less weakened than in previous interventions. Retirement seems to be a relief. This is not surprising considering Juan Carlos’ poor health and the brutal loss of prestige suffered by the monarchy in recent years. Just to name a few, the Borbon dynasty is beset by the public funds misappropriation scandal involving Infanta Cristina and her husband; Juan Carlos’ luxurious safari with his lover Corinna in Botswana, crowned by surgery because of a hunting accident; the even more suspicious accumulation of wealth of the royal family; even public promiscuity. In any case, Juan Carlos will not have to worry about the consequences of his actions, given that the Government is now working on the extension of his privileged jurisdiction; a technical tool that will grant him immunity from justice until his death.
It is, however, not only the former king that is of interest. The new King, Felipe VI, has just been crowned. The new sovereign looks promising: he is handsome and elegant; he has studied abroad, speaks several languages, is married to a plebeian and has fathered two charming girls. Many in Spain, however, want to get rid of him and what he represents. For it is not necessary to look very far in the monarchy’s historical significance to see that the restoration was entirely due to the will of former dictator Francisco Franco, who sought to perpetuate his Spain, ‘Una, Grande, Libre’. The latter dashed the hopes of Franco loyalists as soon as he was crowned, and launched the ‘Transición’ restoration of democracy. Those events as well as the role of the King in diffusing the attempted military coup of 1982 are essentially at the root of the monarchy’s popularity with the older generation.
On the very day of the abdication demonstrations were called in many Spanish cities. Among other priorities, these protests had the following demands: convocation of a national referendum to choose the country’s form of government, creation of a constituent process in order to adopt a new constitution and, for some groups, the proclamation of the Third Republic. King and Government remained deaf to these requests, and Felipe was sworn in on Thursday, June 19. The attitude of the major political parties, the Conservatives (PP) and the Social Democrats (PSOE), in this matter perfectly represents the state of mind of the Transición, the current and questionably democratic system created after Franco’s death confirmed by the 1978 Constitution. Hardly anyone in these two parties contested the continuity of the monarchy. Those that did, for instance in the PSOE, were reprimanded by their superiors. This is not surprising, given that it was precisely these two political movements who negotiated and effected the Transition, with the monarchy as a keystone.
In parallel and reflecting the desire of many citizens, a group called Referendum Real Ya organised a non-official referendum. Two questions were posed to approximately 30,000 voters. The first, which received 95.8% of yes votes, was whether the head of State should be elected by universal suffrage. The second question –‘do you want a constituent process to decide the organisational model of the Spanish state?’- received 98.1% yes votes. The number of voters was quite low but it reflects present orientations: the will to reform the Transición system with its opaque, corrupt and rather undemocratic institutions.
It is interesting to connect this orientation to the European elections results. While in France the far right obtained frightfully large support, in Spain it was the far-left who was the surprise of these elections. The party Podemos (‘We can’) is now the third largest political force with five seats in the European Parliament and growing popularity (and a smear campaign to connect his leader Pablo Iglesias with ETA). The political polarisation of Spanish society, almost destroyed during the Franco years and anaesthetised by the Transición system, is coming back. The attitude of the major political parties is not so surprising: they have to save the monarchy to maintain the system inherited from the immediate post-Franco era. The royal proclamation ceremony has been the subject of many preparations (impressive police deployment, closure of air space, identifications of persons living near the place of the ceremony, without doubt massive surveillance of social networks, etc.). According to some newspapers, unexpectedly few people turned out to acclaim the new King, and three persons were arrested for shouting ‘Long live the republic!’. Shouting ‘Long live the republic!’ in itself is not a crime in Spain, but to disobey a police officer ordering you not to shout it is.
As previously mentioned, the new King appears promising. However, the pillars of the post-dictatorship Spanish state are also observable in his first official acts. In his investiture speech, Felipe VI spoke of the ‘democratic transition’, the mythical reconciliation of Spanish citizens after decades of Fascist dictatorship. This idea of reconciliation, deeply implanted in the post-Franco era is similar to that of Chile after the Pinochet dictatorship: historical amnesia, no prosecution of criminals and abusers, and limited democratic systems. Also, one of the first official acts of Felipe VI was to receive representatives of associations created by victims of terrorist attacks and their families (including ETA victims, among others). This reception shows the preoccupation of the new sovereign with the support of the nationalist right. Finally, Felipe’s first official visit took place at the Vatican, to meet with Pope Francis. Despite the lack of religious symbols during the proclamation ceremony (neither mass nor crucifix), this is a clear reaffirmation of Spain’s Catholicism.
Dynastic continuity has been preserved, without taking into account the explosion of protests since the abdication. Felipe will have to prove himself and deal with several unpleasant matters (among others, Catalonia’s desire for independence). Will he resist the pressure and be able to seduce his subjects? Only time will tell.
Sophie Bustos is a PhD researcher at the Department of Contemporary History, Autonomous University of Madrid. She focuses her research on the diffusion of political liberalism in Spain in the early nineteenth century, and more particularly on the conflict between progressive and conservative in the constitutional regime known as the Liberal Triennial (1820 – 1823).